Revelations in Context on history.lds.org: “Cowdery was among those who believed in and used a divining rod”
Revelations in Context on history.lds.org:
Oliver Cowdery lived in a culture steeped in biblical ideas, language and practices. The revelation’s reference to Moses likely resonated with him. The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Ex. 7:9-12; Num. 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as an instrument for revelation. Cowdery was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.
Was Oliver Cowdery a “treasure hunter” and “rodsman”?
Although there is evidence that Oliver possessed a divining rod, there is no evidence that he or his father were involved in “money digging”
The book An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (page 179) makes the following claim:
Oliver Cowdery came from a similar background. He was a treasure hunter and “rodsman” before he met Joseph Smith in 1829. William Cowdery, his father, was associated with a treasure-seeking group in Vermont, and it is from them, one assumes, that Oliver learned the art of working with a divining rod. (emphasis added)
The author claims as his source: Barnes Frisbie, The History of Middletown, Vermont (Rutland, VT:Tuttle and Co., 1867),43-64; rptd. in Abby Maria Hemenway, ed., Vermont Historical Gazetteer (Claremont, NH: Claremont Manufacturing Co., 1877),3:810-19 quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:599-621.
Here’s what the source actually says:
Because Joseph Smith, Sr., and William Cowdery cannot be linked unequivocally to the Vermont money diggers, Frisbie’s late account must be approached cautiously. (p.600)…Quinn states, “From 1800 to 1802, Nathaniel Wood’s ‘use of the rod was mostly as a medium of revelation.’…Thus, a connection between William Cowdery and the Wood Scrape would help to explain why his son Oliver had a rod through which he received revelations” before he met Joseph Smith in April 1829” (1987, 32). Yet, there is no evidence which directly attributes Cowdery’s rod to his father. (p. 604) (emphasis added)
Oliver’s father cannot be linked to the Vermont “money diggers,” and there is no evidence that Oliver received his divining rod from his father
The author states that Oliver Cowdery was a “treasure hunter and ‘rodsman’” and that his father was associated with the treasure-seeking group as if these were established facts, and uses the Barnes Frisbie account to support this. Yet, Dan Vogel, the editor of the source being used by Palmer, clearly states:
- that “William Cowdery cannot be linked unequivocally to the Vermont money diggers,”
- that the Barnes Frisbee account “must be approached cautiously” and
- that “there is no evidence which directly attributes Cowdery’s rod to his father.” 
This does not mean that Oliver Cowdery did not use a rod—it simply means that the author interpreted his source in a way which was unjustified
The author presents his conclusions based upon circumstantial evidence as fact, with the result being the quotation of the author’s “facts” in other articles. (see the Wikipedia articles “Three Witnesses” and “Oliver Cowdery” for examples of how the author’s conclusions are considered “facts”).
What if the “rod of nature” was indeed a physical object such as a divining rod?
God allowed Oliver to use the rod as a tool to receive spiritual guidance
If we presume that the Book of Commandments revelation of 1829 did refer to a physical rod, it is useful to consider just what Oliver was told:
Oliver Cowdery’s first revelation commanded him to lay aside the world and build the restored kingdom: “Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich” (D&C 6:7). Whatever prior use Oliver made of his “gift of working with the rod,” this revelation directed him to heavenly treasure. Indeed, this first commandment names but one special power: “Thy gift” is “sacred and cometh from above.” It is defined as the ability to “inquire” and “know mysteries which are great and marvelous.” Thus Oliver is commanded to “exercise thy gift, that thou mayest find out mysteries, that thou mayest bring many to the knowledge of the truth, yea, convince them of the error of their ways.” Thus his gift of knowledge of salvation will lead to the “greatest of all gifts,” the “gift of salvation” (D&C 6:10-13).
Oliver’s initial revelation closes with the command to seek heavenly “treasures” by assisting “in bringing to light, with your gift, those parts of my scriptures which have been hidden because of iniquity” (D&C 6:27). The revelation on the gift of the rod probably followed within a week. It continued the theme of learning ancient truth through translating: “Remember, this is your gift” (D&C 8:5). And it could be exercised by believing “you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records” (D&C 8:1). Then a second promise was made:
Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod. Behold, it has told you things. Behold, there is no other power save God that can cause this rod of nature to work in your hands, for it is the work of God. And therefore whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, will I grant unto you, that you shall know.
But there were strict limits to this promise: “Trifle not with these things. Do not ask for that which you ought not. Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate all those ancient records.”
So the “rod of nature” in Cowdery’s “hands” would be a means of gaining revelation on doctrine. 
Thus, the alteration which describes the “rod” as “the gift of Aaron” clarifies the Lord’s intent, and explains how Oliver and Joseph understood the matter. Aaron’s rod was an instrument of power, but only insofar as God revealed and commanded its use. Such a perspective is a far cry from the “occult” links which the critics attempt to create:
D&C 8 approves a rod only for sacred information. It also suggests the rod that displayed God’s power in the Egyptian plagues, in striking the rock for life-giving water or in calling down strength on Israel’s warriors. That rod was a straight shaft, the shepherd’s staff possessed by Moses at his call (Ex. 4:2-4). Used by both Moses and Aaron, it was foremost the “rod of God,” also Moses’ rod, but formally called the “rod of Aaron.” It functioned as a visible sign of authority, just as Judah’s “scepter” was a sign of divine kingship in Jacob’s blessing or Elijah’s staff held by the servant who went in his name. Thus the rod of Aaron was a staff of delegated agency, and the 1835 revision to “The gift of Aaron” suggests Oliver’s spiritual power to assist Joseph Smith as Aaron assisted Moses. 
Did Joseph Smith attempt to “cover up” Oliver Cowdery's work with a divining rod by changing the wording of the revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants 8:6–8?
The edits to this portion of the revelation were actually performed by Sidney Rigdon, likely with Joseph’s approval
A revelation received by Joseph praised Oliver Cowdery’s gift of using divining talents. The revelation was published in the Book of Commandments in its original form, then subsequently modified in the Doctrine and Covenants. We do not know why Sidney Rigdon chose to alter the wording of the revelation, but he is the one that actually changed the wording to “rod of nature.”
We know based upon the text of the revelation that Oliver possessed a gift of working with something alternately referred to as a “sprout,” “thing of nature,” or “rod of nature.” We also know that the Lord approved of Oliver’s use of this gift. The reference was later changed to the “gift of Aaron,” but we can only speculate as to the exact reason why. According to the Church History website, the “rod” referred to by Sidney Rigdon when he edited the revelation was likely a divining rod. It is possible that “gift of Aaron” was substituted as the revelatory device because if carried fewer negative connotations than “divining rod.” However, a “cover up” is not usually done by committee, and it is clear that multiple individuals assisted in editing the revelations before they were to be published in the Doctrine and Covenants. It is also difficult to claim a “cover up” since “rod of nature” was to be published in the Book of Commandments in 1833, only two years before change to “gift of Aaron” was published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.
We do know that Oliver’s gift had to do with receiving revelation, and that Oliver attempted to employ it during the period in which the Book of Mormon was being translated. We also know that Oliver’s experience in attempting to translate produced one of the lasting lessons which continues to be taught in Church even today—the knowledge that one must study things out in their mind in order to know the truth of something.
How was the wording of the “rod of nature” revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants 8:6–8 altered over time?
The revelation was edited by several individuals, including Sidney Rigdon
The original wording of the revelation along with revisions performed by Oliver Cowdery, William W. Phelps, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, John Whitmer, and another unidentified editor is recorded in the REVELATION BOOK 1 (April 1829-B [D&C 8]). The original revelation reads as follows:
…remember this is thy gift now this is not all for thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout Behold it hath told you things Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands. 
Sidney Rigdon edited the passage to read like this:
…remember this is your gift now this is not all for you have another gift which is the gift of working with the rod Behold it has told you things Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this rod to work in your hands. (emphasis added)
In the Book of Commandments (the predecessor to the Doctrine and Covenants), the revelation underwent an additional revision by a publication committee of the First Presidency (Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Frederick G. Williams). The Book of Commandments stated:
Chapter 7:3—Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God. (emphasis added)
In the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, this was revised to read:
D&C 8:6–8—Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God. (1921 edition, 8:6–8.) (emphasis added)
Thus, “working with the sprout” and the “thing of Nature” were changed to “the gift of working with the rod,” which was again later revised to “the gift of Aaron.” It has been assumed on the basis of this that Oliver Cowdery was a “rodsman,” or someone who used a divining rod to search for treasure, water, or other things hidden.
Evidence used to support this assertion is the fact that in 1801, a religious sect led by the Wood family enjoyed a brief popularity, and they sought for treasure with divining rods.  The Wood group was reportedly taught this skill by a counterfeiter/forger named either Winchell or Wingate. Winchell/Wingate had been a guest at the home of Oliver’s father, William. Attempts have been made to tie William Cowdery to the Wood group, but there is no evidence that he had any connection with them aside from knowing Winchell/Wingate. As Richard L. Anderson observed:
An 1828 newspaper history of the Wood episode refers to neither the mysterious counterfeiter nor Cowdery. The main group of Middletown survivors of the 1800 period–“more than thirty men and women”–were interviewed up to 1860, and they said nothing of a counterfeiter or of Cowdery. The 1867 recollections of a minister who visited the group in the final weeks of their movement include mention of the counterfeiter but not Cowdery–when a disciple was asked where the criminal stayed, he answered: “He keeps himself secreted in the woods.” Frisbie’s own claims about the Cowdery connection to the Wood group are both unclear and unsupported. This is the patchwork of folklore, not tightly woven history. 
It is therefore not clear whether Oliver used a rod for treasure seeking. The critical association of Oliver’s possible use of a rod with the activities of local “rodsmen” seeking treasure is used to imply that Oliver was also a treasure seeker.
Gospel Topics: “the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpent, holy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva”
Gospel Topics on LDS.org:
Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpent, holy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.
Dallin H. Oaks (1987): “It should be recognized that such tools as the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, seerstones, and other articles have been used appropriately in biblical, Book of Mormon, and modern times”
Dallin H. Oaks:
It should be recognized that such tools as the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, seerstones, and other articles have been used appropriately in biblical, Book of Mormon, and modern times by those who have the gift and authority to obtain revelation from God in connection with their use. At the same time, scriptural accounts and personal experience show that unauthorized though perhaps well-meaning persons have made inappropriate use of tangible objects while seeking or claiming to receive spiritual guidance. Those who define folk magic to include any use of tangible objects to aid in obtaining spiritual guidance confound the real with the counterfeit. They mislead themselves and their readers. 
Some or all of this content is used by permission of FairMormon.